Signs and Symptoms of an Infection After Surgery

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If you are recovering from surgery, you may worry about infection. Infections can happen in your incision or in your blood.

It is important to take the right steps to prevent infection. Doing all the right things after surgery, though, doesn’t guarantee you will be infection-free.

This article discusses infections after surgery and how to prevent them. It also looks at types of infections, symptoms, and when you should see a doctor.

Post-Surgery Signs of Infection

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Types of Infections

Infections of the incision are common. It is also possible to develop an infection somewhere other than your incision.

Urinary tract infections are common after surgery. This is especially true for patients who had a urinary catheter during or after the surgery. This is a tube inserted into the bladder to drain urine.

Pneumonia can also develop after surgery. This is a serious lung infection.

Antibiotics can increase the risk of Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infections. This is a type of bacteria that can infect your digestive tract.

Symptoms of Infection

It is important to watch out for symptoms of infection. If you notice any of these symptoms after surgery, call your doctor.

Infected Surgical Incision Symptoms

Be aware of these signs of infection:

  • Hot incision: An infected incision may feel hot to the touch. This happens as the body sends infection-fighting blood cells to the site.
  • Swelling/hardening of the incision: An infected incision may harden. This happens as the tissue underneath becomes inflamed. The incision may also look swollen or puffy.
  • Redness: Some redness at the incision site is normal. The red color should decrease over time. If it becomes redder, it may be infected. Red streaks radiating from the incision to the surrounding skin are another sign of infection.
  • Drainage from the incision: An infected incision may produce foul-smelling drainage or pus. The pus can range in color. It may be blood-tinged, green, white, or yellow. The drainage may also be thick. In rare cases, it might be chunky.
  • Pain: You should have a slow and steady improvement in your pain as you heal. It is normal to have more pain if you are too active. You may also notice more pain if you take less pain medication. If pain at the surgery site increases and you don't know the reason, you may be developing an infection. Tell your surgeon about any significant, unexplained increase in pain.

You can help prevent infection by taking care of your incision.

Recap

An infected incision may be red or swollen. It may feel warm, painful, or drain pus.

Urinary Tract Infection Symptoms

Urinary tract infections are common after surgery. Symptoms include:

  • Burning with urination
  • Urgency, or a sudden, immediate need to use the bathroom
  • Needing to urinate frequently
  • Lower abdominal pain

Pneumonia Symptoms

Surgery patients are at a higher risk of pneumonia. If you develop a cough in the days following surgery, call your doctor.

C. Diff Symptoms

The antibiotics you receive during surgery can put you at risk for C. diff infection. This is a bacterial infection of the large intestine. Symptoms include:

Recap

Watch for signs of other types of infections, including burning or urgent urination, a cough, and severe diarrhea.

Systemic Infection Symptoms

A systemic infection is an infection that spreads through your body. This type of infection can be serious. Common symptoms are fever and malaise.

Malaise is when you feel tired and lack energy. You may sleep more than usual. You may not feel up to doing normal things.

These feelings are common in all surgery patients. The difference with an infection is their timing.

When recovering from surgery, most people feel a bit better each day. Someone developing an infection may feel better for a few days, then suddenly feel exhausted and lethargic.

A fever is another sign of infection. When you have a fever, you may have chills. You may also have a poor appetite. Fevers can cause dehydration and headache, too.

It is common to have a low-grade fever in the days after surgery. A low-grade fever is 100 F or less. Tell your surgeon if you have a fever of 100.4 F or more.

Recap

Systemic infection can be serious. Call your doctor if you develop malaise or a high fever.

Watch for Signs of Infection

You can help stop an infection with a few simple steps. In the first few weeks after surgery, inspect your incision every day for signs of infection.

You should also take your temperature daily. This can help you identify an infection early. It is best to take your temperature at the same time each day.

It is important to identify an infection right away. Prompt care can keep it from becoming more serious.

Once your infection has been identified, your surgeon can prescribe antibiotics. These will help prevent the infection from spreading.

When to See a Doctor

See a doctor if you think you might have an infection of any kind. Any infection after surgery can become very serious. Life-threatening infections can start with a very small area of infection.

A urinary tract infection can become sepsis. Sepsis is a severe inflammatory reaction to an infection.

Sepsis can become septic shock. This is life-threatening. Septic shock decreases blood pressure and can lead to organ failure. Patients with septic shock need intensive care.

Summary

Even if you are careful, an infection can happen after surgery. You may develop an infection in your incision. You could also develop a urinary tract infection, pneumonia, or another type of infection.

Watch for redness, swelling, drainage, pain, and warmth at the incision site. If you have a urinary tract infection, you may have a burning sensation with urination or a sudden or frequent need to urinate.

Systemic infections can become serious. Symptoms include fever and malaise.

Infections can become life-threatening. Call your doctor if you notice any symptoms of infection.

A Word From Verywell

Infection after surgery is common. It is worth the effort to prevent infection when you can. Infection delays healing and increases recovery time. It can also increase your pain and lead to scarring. In the worst cases, you may need to be hospitalized.

The good news is, you can do simple things to prevent infection. Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer when a sink is not available. 

You can do other things to reduce your risk of infection. The best way to stay healthy after surgery, though, is to keep your hands clean.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the risk of developing a surgical site infection?

    Between 2% and 5% percent of patients who undergo surgery develop a surgical site infection (SSI).

  • How quickly can an infection develop after surgery?

    Surgical site infections usually develop within 30 days. However, with surgeries to place some sort of implant, an infection may occur within 90 days.

  • What are the different kinds of surgical site infections?

    There are three types of surgical site infections (SSIs):

    • Superficial incisional: Limited to the incision area
    • Deep incisional: Occurs under the incision and affects muscle and surrounding tissue
    • Organ or space: Involves any other area of the body, including an organ or space between organs
  • How common is pneumonia after surgery?

    Pneumonia is the third most common infection associated with surgery. In studies, the incidence of pneumonia developing within 48 to 72 hours of entering the hospital for surgery has ranged from 2.7% to nearly 29%.

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13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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